Monday, February 4, 2013


Rubab in the studio, 2/4/13

My goodness, it has been awhile!

I have been playing a lot, but there hasn't been much news.  I have officially started recording my gourd banjo CD, and I have gotten my fiddle playing on the new instrument into much better shape than it has been in for years (well, forever, really), and then one day last month I saw this instrument on eBay.

It is a rubab (rabab, rebab...several spellings), perhaps the most important musical instrument of Afghanistan.  With my attraction to many Afghan things--rugs, food, music, Sufism--it isn't much of a surprise that I found this instrument so appealing.  The rubabs I have seen for sale, especially on eBay, have either been new ones with garish plastic stuck all over them and questionable playability or, once in awhile, a real one that's too beaten up to play.  This one, from a seller in Portland, OR, appeared to have some good age and once the three main playing strings were replaced, it was ready to go.  Being a rubab player himself, the seller was very helpful in providing me resources so I could get this together (not the usual impersonal eBay transaction...).

I am not really going to become a player of traditional Afghan music, but my limited experience in Middle Eastern/Central Asian improvisation means I can get around on it pretty well.  It is not an instrument designed for virtuoso display (part of its appeal, I think).  You have three strings that you really play on, tuned in fourths (so if you can noodle around on a guitar's 5th (A), 4th (D), and 3rd (G) strings, you're basically there), you get frets (4) from the lowest pitch to a major 9th above that, and above that you are on your own without frets.  I decided to tune the lowest playing string to "Sa," (the Afghan/Indian name for the Western "Do"), and have my "Sa" tuned to D; some players start on "Ni" which would be C or C# in my case, but I prefer starting on "Sa" or D, which I understand is Peshawari tuning.  So, my playing strings are Sa (D), Ma (G), and Ni (C).   

The thing that makes the instrument sound transcendental are all the other strings.  The configuration varies from instrument to instrument, and this rubab is a little unusual for being a smaller one having the full complement of three drone strings (tuned Sa (D), Pa (A), and Sa (an octave higher D)) and 12 sympathetic strings.  The top sympathetic string is also Sa (an octave higher than the highest drone string); it is higher on the bridge than the other sympathetic strings, and like the three drones it gets plucked to make a nice drone sound, either for emphasis or rhythm.  The other sympathetic strings are tuned to the notes of whatever that (scale) of the rag (mode) you are playing, and they ring constantly, adding sustain to your melody notes as well as an enchanting reverb.  Some fabulous rubab virtuosos like Humayun Sakhi play on the sympathetic strings too, but traditionally that isn't what they're for.  All these extra strings are really to take simple melody and make it sound amazing.  Here is a kind-of lame video of me playing this instrument on the first day I had it put together, but it gives you an idea of what it sounds like.  If you have a little more time, here is a little documentary about Humayun Sakhi, who is probably the most famous rubab virtuoso.

So, on one hand this is basically an Afghan banjo (skin head, etc) with sympathetic strings, but I also realize that a new voice like this opens up possibilities that I haven't anticipated.  We shall see!